By HENRY AUBIN - When François Legault invited 35 anglophone business leaders to a get-to-knowme meeting last week, he had reason to think it would go well. After all, the leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec is himself a successful former businessman, and his provincial party's ideas are emphatically pro-business.
Sure enough, the meeting at Mount Royal Club began quite positively. As a sign of his openness to the Englishspeaking community, the former Parti Québécois cabinet minister spoke mostly in English, though the audience was conversant in French. His pitch: A CAQ government would boost entrepreneurism, bring head offices to Montreal and reduce many things - government regulation, the civil service, the public debt and, once Quebec became more prosperous, the reliance on federal transfer payments.
It was during that Q&A that good vibes instantly changed, say audience members who asked not to be identified because the meeting was private.
The very first question, says one witness, was like a "Molotov cocktail."
The question was this: Would Legault allow children of parents who were educated in English outside of Canada to attend English school? Bill 101 says they must go to French school. (The law exempts families only if they are here temporarily, though the three-year exemption is renewable.)
The room went still.
Would Legault put the language issue ahead of his pledge to boost Montreal as a business centre?
The questioner, it's worth noting, is no hidebound English-rights advocate but, rather, a parent who sends his child to a French school although he himself was educated in English in Montreal and does not have to do so. As an executive, however, he has had trouble persuading managers from his transportation company's U.S. operations to move here because of this provision of Bill 101.
The problem handicaps many recruiters. "Montreal can't compete with Toronto because of it," says Alex Kovalenko, operations director of Kovasys IT Recruitment. He says dozens of Americans his firm contacts turn down jobs here every year for this reason.
The head of McGill, Heather Munroe-Blum, recently noted two distinct trends in recruiting foreign faculty: Parents of young children often see the language law as attractive, since it means their children will become bilingual; however, the law often repels parents of children of secondary school age because it means the adjustment could be hard and that grades - important for university admission - might suffer.
The provision also strikes at the heart of Legault's claim that a CAQ government would reverse the outflow of Montreal's head offices. In a speech to Montreal's Chambre de Commerce two days before this meeting, Legault had deplored the flight of 16 of Montreal's head offices between 2000 and 2008.
So, here's Legault answer to that incisive question: No, a CAQ government would not change the law.
"It was a very aggressive 'no,' " says a senior real-estate developer. "The mood of the room turned at once."
He adds: "What is disturbing is that he can't grow the Montreal economy without its entrepreneurs, the majority of whom do not have French Quebec roots." (Note that a Conseil du patronat's study last summer ranked Quebec's entrepreneurial intensity - "a necessary condition for wealth creation and prosperity" - as being well below the Canadian average.) Bill 101's status quo also could mean head offices will further erode.
The developer sums up: "Those of us with access to investors outside Quebec know they won't buy into this closed society. So Legault's growth strategy is smoke and mirrors."
Perhaps, yet Premier Jean Charest would have given the same answer to the same question, albeit couched more nicely.
Why then, I asked the ques-tioner, favour Charest's Liberals over the CAQ?
The one is federalist, tired and famously cynicismproducing; the other vows decade-long neutrality on the constitution, focuses on the economy and is virginal so far as sleaze goes.
The executive's reply: "Legault presents the 'national' issue in a way that's disturbing to the English community. He doesn't say, 'We sovereignists missed the boat and it's over.' His basic idea is, 'If we spend 10 or 15 years improving the economy and becoming less dependent on transfer payments, we'll be able to separate.'
"The ultimate grail is still there."
François Legault finds that Bill 101 and business don't mix
Language question like 'Molotov cocktail' at get-to-know-you meeting with CAQ leader François Legault